Tom Wolfe launched new genre of jour­nal­ism

Writer turned to fic­tion and pro­duced best-sell­ers


The birth of the lit­er­ary move­ment known as “New Jour­nal­ism” can be traced to one cof­fee-fu­eled episode in 1963: Tom Wolfe’s all-nighter. He had been sent to Cal­i­for­nia by Esquire mag­a­zine to re­port on a gather­ing of cus­tom-car de­sign­ers and ca­su­ally cool teenagers.

Pho­tos of lac­quer-painted cars were laid out on the pages and the mag­a­zine was about to go to press, but Wolfe wasn’t able to com­plete his first as­sign­ment for Esquire. Fi­nally, man­ag­ing edi­tor By­ron Do­bell told him to write up his notes as a memo, which the edi­tors would shape into a story.

Wolfe be­gan typ­ing at 8 p.m.

“I wrapped up the mem­o­ran­dum about 6:15 a.m.,” he later wrote, “and by this time it was 49 pages long. I took it over to Esquire as soon as they opened up, about 9:30 a.m.”

The story, “There Goes (Va­room! Va­room!) That Kandy Kolored (Th­ph­h­h­hhh!) Tan­ger­ine-Flake Stream­line Baby,” was more than a du­ti­ful re­port on the car con­ven­tion. Wolfe had dis­cov­ered an un­der­ground cul­ture among the West Coast car de­sign­ers, hail­ing them as the van­guard of a new form of mod­ern art, not un­like Pi­casso.

Sel­dom had jour­nal­ism seen such an au­da­cious dis­play of ob­ser­va­tion, wry hu­mor and go-for-baroque ver­bal dex­ter­ity. Wolfe in­vented words, wrote in the point of view of his char­ac­ters and peppered his pages with el­lipses, ital­ics and ex­cla­ma­tion marks.

Just like that, the le­gend of Tom Wolfe was born.

“It was like he dis­cov­ered it in the mid­dle of the night,” Do­bell told Van­ity Fair in 2015. “Wher­ever it came from, it seemed to me to tap a strain of pure Amer­i­can hu­mor that wasn’t be­ing tapped.”

Wolfe, who had a trans­for­ma­tive ef­fect on jour­nal­ism and later be­came a best-sell­ing nov­el­ist, died Mon­day at a Man­hat­tan hospi­tal. He was 88. His niece Hughes Evans con­firmed the death, but no other in­for­ma­tion was im­me­di­ately avail­able.

In 1963, Wolfe was a lit­tle-known re­porter at the New York Her­ald Tri­bune. Less than two years later, when his first col­lec­tion, “The Kandy-Kolored Tan­ger­ine-Flake Stream­line Baby,” was pub­lished, he was one of the most fa­mous and in­flu­en­tial writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion.

His books be­came best-sell­ers, and his ex­plo­sive, fast-mov­ing prose was seen as the per­fect ve­hi­cle for the times. He in­vented or pop­u­lar­ized phrases such as “good old boy,” “rad­i­cal chic,” the “Me Decade” (some­times al­tered to “Me Gen­er­a­tion”) and “push­ing the en­ve­lope.”

Per­haps his most mem­o­rable coinage was the ti­tle of what is of­ten con­sid­ered his great­est achieve­ment: “The Right Stuff.” Pub­lished in 1979, the book was an epic ac­count of the idea of Amer­i­can hero­ism, viewed through the ex­ploits of mil­i­tary test pi­lots and as­tro­nauts.

Wolfe chron­i­cled the rise of the hip­pie gen­er­a­tion in “The Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (1968) and mocked the pre­ten­sions of Man­hat­tan lib­er­als in “Rad­i­cal Chic” (1970) and of the art world in “The Painted Word” (1975). He glee­fully vi­o­lated the city edi­tor’s dic­tum to trim each sen­tence to a sleek, un­der­stated nugget of news: For Wolfe, no ver­bal ex­trav­a­gance was too much.

“Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism has never had a prac­ti­tioner who com­bined the at­tributes of tal­ent, au­dac­ity, learn­ing, leg­work, and pure ob­ser­va­tion as well as Tom Wolfe,” au­thor and scholar Ben Yagoda wrote in “The Art of Fact,” a 1997 an­thol­ogy of nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion.

Wolfe was con­sid­ered the leader of an inkstained avant-garde that in­cluded Jimmy Bres­lin, Joan Did­ion, Ge­orge Plimp­ton, Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thomp­son. Their per­sonal, im­mer­sive style was im­i­tated, with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess, in prac­ti­cally ev­ery news­pa­per fea­ture sec­tion in the coun­try.

“The most im­por­tant lit­er­a­ture be­ing writ­ten in Amer­ica to­day is in non­fic­tion,” Wolfe as­serted in his 1973 an­thol­ogy, “The New Jour­nal­ism,” which be­came the stan­dard of pro­saic rubric for his style of writ­ing.

He bor­rowed cer­tain tech­niques from fic­tion, in­clud­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and di­a­logue, but knew that jour­nal­ism had some­thing else go­ing for it — “the sim­ple fact that the reader knows all this ac­tu­ally hap­pened.”

In al­most ev­ery­thing he wrote, Wolfe ex­am­ined what he called “sta­tus de­tails” — the finer points of be­hav­ior, trends, fash­ion and the pur­suit of pres­tige that, in his view, shaped the Amer­i­can so­cial or­der. Sullen teenagers, South­ern good old boys, arty ur­ban­ites, elite test pi­lots, all mea­sured them­selves by what their peers thought of them. Per­haps as a marker of his own sta­tus, Wolfe pro­nounced the word “stay-tus.”

For years, Wolfe dis­par­aged the mod­ern novel as a life­less relic that could be re­vived only with a mus­cu­lar frame­work of re­port­ing and so­cial re­al­ism. De­cid­ing to do the job him­self, he pub­lished “The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties” in Rolling Stone mag­a­zine, then, af­ter con­sid­er­able re­vi­sion, in book form in 1987.

The novel de­scribes the comeuppance of a wealthy bond trader and self-de­scribed “mas­ter of the uni­verse” amid the racial and cul­tural tur­moil of New York. “Bon­fire” sold mil­lions of copies and was made into a 1990 film with Tom Hanks, Melanie Grif­fith and Bruce Wil­lis.

In many ways “Bon­fire” was his last lit­er­ary tri­umph. His books on art and ar­chi­tec­ture, in­clud­ing “From Bauhaus to Our House” (1981), re­ceived bit­ing re­views, in­clud­ing this one from Michael Sorkin in the Na­tion: “What Tom Wolfe doesn’t know about mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture could fill a book. And so in­deed it has.”

Wolfe re­ceived the Na­tional Hu­man­i­ties Medal from Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush in 2001 and sold his ar­chives to the New York Pub­lic Li­brary in 2013 for $2 mil­lion.

His later nov­els — “A Man in Full” (1998), “I Am Charlotte Sim­mons” (2004) and “Back to Blood” (2012) — re­ceived tepid re­views. He feuded with nov­el­ists John Updike and John Irv­ing over dis­mis­sive com­ments they made about his fic­tion. He con­tin­ued to pub­lish non­fic­tion books well into his 80s, with crit­ics not­ing that he of­ten skew­ered the ab­sur­di­ties of the left but never the buf­foon­ery of the right.

What he didn’t lack was con­fi­dence in the power of his prose.

“I re­gard my­self in the first flight of writ­ers, but I don’t dwell on this,” Wolfe said in 1981. “If any­thing, I think I tend to be a lit­tle mod­est.”


Jour­nal­ist and nov­el­ist Tom Wolfe shows off a trade­mark white suit in Novem­ber 1986. Wolfe died Mon­day at a hospi­tal in Man­hat­tan.

Tom Wolfe

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